Protecting Scotland’s interests

Response to Foreign Office letter on international visits by Scottish Ministers.

External Affairs Secretary Angus Robertson has called on the Foreign Secretary to withdraw guidance and a letter sent to UK Government diplomats on the handling of visits by Scottish Ministers.

In his response to the letter, which was circulated to all UK Heads of Mission on 31 March, Mr Robertson says there are ‘a number of omissions and misleading assertions’ in the Foreign Secretary’s letter and he is ‘concerned at the damage [the] letter and guidance could do to Scottish trade, cultural exchanges and education, and to Scottish interests in general.

Commenting on the letter, Mr Robertson said:

“Scotland has long benefitted from the investment and domestic benefits our international network has helped to deliver and as EY reported last year, Scotland continues to outperform the UK as a whole for foreign direct investment, driving the creation of new jobs and economic opportunities for local businesses.

“Ministerial engagement to promote Scotland is a key driver of these opportunities, alongside the efforts of our international network, and it is more vital than ever, given the damage of Brexit to the Scottish economy and trade. Just this week, Wellbeing Economy Secretary Neil Gray met with a major Japanese company in Osaka to discuss plans for a large subsea electric cable manufacturing plant in the Highlands.

“We will of course resist any move by the UK Government to curtail these types of visits and reduce opportunities to promote Scottish trade and investment opportunities.  There is, rightly, nothing in the Scotland Act that prevents Scottish ministers from undertaking overseas visits to promote Scottish interests.”  

The letter reads:

30 April 2023

Dear James,

I was surprised on 13 April to receive, via a newspaper journalist seeking a comment, a copy of your letter of 31 March to Heads of UK Missions abroad entitled “Working with the Scottish Government internationally” and covering new FCDO guidance on “how to manage and support devolved government ministerial visits overseas”.

I am concerned about the damage the letter and guidance could do to Scottish trade, cultural exchanges and education, and to Scottish interests in general. There are a number of omissions and misleading assertions, and the guidance in places appears unworkable. I therefore ask that you withdraw it. The problems that will result if the guidance stands are set out in the annexe to this letter, but I will emphasise some key points here.

Scotland is a country, an ancient nation, currently part of what is supposed to be a voluntary union of nations, and has a long history of engaging with other nations. Set alongside measures such as the Internal Market Act and the Retained EU (Revocation and Reform) Bill, the new guidance is further example of the UK Government’s intention to undermine devolution and its dismissal of the idea that the UK is a voluntary union. The UK Government’s apparent determination to reduce Scotland to the status of a mere administrative unit and for it to be characterised as such by UK Government diplomats is unacceptable.

The Scottish Government is internationalist to its core. We believe Scotland has a contribution to make to global issues, whether that is tackling climate change, international development, advancing equalities around the world, the treatment of those fleeing war and oppression and many other topics where the UK Government also has relevant responsibilities. We cannot be expected to turn our back on our core national values, and we will not do so.

You appear particularly concerned that the Scottish Government may seek to “encroach” on reserved matters. The guidance repeatedly makes the point that UK Government diplomats should explain the distinction between reserved and devolved powers to the host governments in the countries concerned. I have no objection to that, but it is essential that the distinction is explained properly. As currently worded, the guidance contains inaccuracies that would seriously mislead host governments.

The Scotland Act 1998 does, broadly speaking, reserve international relations, but as the guidance acknowledges, “the reservation of international relations does not have the effect of precluding Scottish Ministers and officials from communicating with other countries, regions or international or European institutions, so long as the representatives of the Scottish Parliament or Scottish Ministers do not purport to speak for the United Kingdom or to reach agreements which commit the UK”. It should be needless to say that Scottish Government Ministers would never purport to speak for the UK. The fact that we have very different views on matters such as immigration, asylum and Brexit will be well known to governments overseas, and it would be absurd to think that our such views could be confused with those of the UK Government.

The guidance also says that it is “in line with handling for visits from Ministers across HMG. The Scottish Government is, however, not an arm of the UK Government, but a separate government, elected by the people of Scotland. The Scottish Parliament exists because the people of Scotland voted for it in the 1997 referendum, doing so by a margin of 3 to 1. The Scottish Parliament and Government are permanent institutions with responsibilities including implementing international obligations in respect of devolved matters.

In terms of the practical effect, the clear purpose of the guidance appears to be to limit the Scottish Government’s international activity. Make no mistake: this will cause real, practical damage to Scotland’s interests. Scotland is home to leading businesses in space, renewables, life sciences and artificial intelligence and has an arts and culture sector with a global reputation. Our economy, businesses, educational institutions and transition to net zero all depend on international partnerships and engagement. The Scottish diaspora comprises some 40 million people, many of whom want to engage with Scotland. In all of these areas of activity other countries, their governments and businesses want to work with Scotland. The new guidance seems designed to put obstacles in the way of that.

The House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee has heard this year from a string of business, education and cultural institutions that the most active proponents of Scottish interests abroad have been the Scottish Government and agencies. To reduce this activity would have a seriously negative impact on Scotland’s interests. Indeed, the committee heard from a range of Scottish organisations that the UK Government has failed to promote Scottish produce and key business sectors sufficiently.

What makes the guidance even more damaging is that it seeks to address a problem that does not exist. Collaborative relations between Scottish and UK officials working in UK Missions overseas are generally excellent. Where collaboration could be improved is in relation to the need for the UK Government to engage the Devolved Governments when negotiating relevant international agreements in a way that was sadly lacking for the recent UK-German Connection Agreement.

In short, your letter and guidance amount to an attempt to censor Scottish Government Ministers’ legitimate engagement in international forums and meetings. They give an inaccurate picture of both the way the Union itself is supposed to operate and of devolution. And above all, they will damage the Scottish economy and a range of Scottish interests.

It is for these reasons that I ask you to withdraw both the guidance and your letter.

I am copying this letter to Mick Antoniw MS, Counsel General for Wales, and the Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service.


Protecting Scotland's interests: letter to the UK Foreign Secretary.


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